Compassion for desperate refugees. Panic over porous borders. These conflicting emotions have both been on display in the last week. Most reasonable people will admit to feeling an element of both.
A group of people thought to be migrants adrift in a dinghy in the Channel
– PA Wire
The tension between these competing instincts is far from unique to Britain and far from new. At the turn of the 20th century, there was a flow of Jewish refugees from the Russian pogroms which brought around 150,000 people to our shores. They didn’t arrive in rubber dinghies but had an equally hazardous journey across Europe. There was a political backlash. The Conservative – Balfour – government of the time brought in the Aliens’ Act (1905) to curb immigration and assert border control.
There was, in turn, a liberal backlash against the backlash. An up-and-coming Tory MP denounced the legislation and was sufficiently incensed to cross the floor to join the Liberal Party. He said that the legislation would “appeal to insular prejudice against foreigners and fan racial prejudice” and spoke in favour of “the old, tolerant and generous practices of free entry and asylum to which this country has long adhered and from which it has so far greatly gained”. This compassionate Conservative was Winston Churchill.
If Churchill is watching today’s events from above, he will doubtless be surprised to see that curbs prompted by another wave of refugees are being introduced by a Conservative home secretary of East African Asian ancestry. East African Asians prompted a comparable migrant panic when, in 1968, Kenyan Asians (who carried British passports) came to the UK after expulsion from Africa. The door was slammed by the Labour government through emergency legislation despite opposition from the Liberals, led by David Steel, and from a small group of Conservative and Labour MPs.
Shortly after, with the prospect of a fresh exodus from Uganda, the Conservative government of Edward Heath decided to emulate Churchill rather than Balfour and welcomed the refugees. Since my late wife, Olympia, was a Kenyan Asian I was caught up in the politics and the emotions of the time and saw Britain at its best and worst. The best was the genuine warmth and tolerance many British people showed. The worst was the outpouring of visceral racial hatred which drew inspiration from the speeches of Mr Enoch Powell, the Nigel Farage of his day.
Similar episodes, albeit of lower intensity, have followed, concerning refugees from the former Yugoslavia and Hong Kong. In the latter case, the British government has progressed from initial, horrified warnings of millions of destitute Chinese appearing, to a largely uncontroversial welcome following the political clamp-down by the Chinese authorities. Broadly speaking, public opinion has been positive or, at least, accommodating.
The awkward truth however is that the asylum versus migration distinction is largely meaningless in practice. Of the millions fleeing Afghanistan, it hardly matters whether the primary reason for leaving is hunger and unemployment or the attitude of the Taliban to women and criminal justice. For those caught up in the civil wars in Syria and Ethiopia or the lawlessness of Somalia, Northern Nigeria or Congo or being used as political pawns by warlords in Libya and the Belarus dictatorship, the political versus economic motivation is often a pedantic, legalistic distraction from a life – or death – struggle.
It is the sheer vastness of the potential refugee problem which excites the competing emotions of compassion and fear. It would take an exceedingly insensitive bigot to deny that those crossing in small boats are “genuine”. To take such risks is itself a sign of sheer desperation. Yet only the most other-worldly idealist would deny that politicians have a genuine problem trying to balance a limited supply of domestic resources and tolerance against an almost infinite level of need. Britain’s geography has shielded it from the much larger refugee crises being contained in camps in Pakistan and Turkey or in Greece and Italy.
Immigration and asylum is a seriously difficult area of policy for these reasons. All things considered, Britain’s overall historic record is not too bad, though legislation currently before parliament will now make ours one of the more illiberal systems in the western world. Some countries – Japan and China, for example – have dealt with immigration by keeping the door firmly closed for essentially racist reasons. Others, despite a big capacity to absorb refugees, like Australia, have behaved appallingly with thousands imprisoned in camps on islands far away. Even the US, a country whose idea of freedom is based on its openness, has succumbed to nativist prejudice. And even those famed for their liberal democratic traditions, like the Scandinavians and the Dutch, struggle with the politics of non-European immigration.
If there is a modern success story it is Germany. The decision by Angela Merkel to admit and welcome a million Muslim Syrians was widely condemned by nationalists at the time but appears to have worked well: sufficiently so for the new “traffic light” coalition to embrace the legacy and further liberalise the immigration regime, easing the path to citizenship. If there are lessons to be learnt, they are about the importance of steady political leadership, careful planning and a conscious policy of integration. The Germans have ignored a bogus distinction between “political” and “economic” migrants, treating the Syrian war refugees as an economic resource.
So, what can be done in the UK? First, we need some calm, public education about numbers. In the year before Covid (2019) there was total immigration of around 650,000 people and net immigration – that is, after deducting emigration – of just under half that number. A third of the arrivals came to work. Another third came to study and are not “immigrants” at all (they intend to return to their home countries) but are counted as such for bizarre statistical reasons. Refugees making asylum claims were 35,700 in 2019 (a mere 6 per cent of immigrants) and the numbers fell to 29,000 last year. More are now arriving by boat and fewer by air, train or lorry.
Second, the policy of closing legal routes to asylum has seriously and shamefully backfired. It is now virtually impossible to apply for asylum at British embassies overseas. And airlines are subject to heavy fines if they allow asylum seekers on board flights to the UK. As a consequence, refugees use more dangerous routes like the cross-Channel boats. Some relaxation of the legal routes would reduce numbers coming by this treacherous route. We should also welcome people who can be useful: Iranian engineers or Kurdish entrepreneurs, such as the family of Mr Nadim Zahawi, the current education secretary.
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Third, trying to control our borders while spurning cooperation with France is simply silly. There are people smugglers on both sides of the Channel. And anyone who has tried to get cooperation from a French official by shouting at them loudly in English knows that there will only be one winner: the French official. It is also doubtful if those voters who are genuinely worried about border control are likely to be convinced by childish chauvinism. Of course, the French are also behaving badly. But we need them at least as much as they need us.
Fourth, there are basic issues of competence. I don’t believe that the German people are more generous than ours or that their politicians are more enlightened. But the Germans expect efficiency. The British Home Office by contrast is a disgrace (a judgement based not just on recent events but 20 years dealing with casework as an MP). We are currently seeing a Phase 2 Windrush disaster in the compensation system; virtually no progress in setting up an Afghan Resettlement programme; regular endless, inhumane, delays in the deportation system; and breakdowns in the electronic gates at Heathrow causing massive delays. Replacing the incumbent home secretary with a competent alternative might help on all fronts.
Meanwhile, since the prime minister idolises Winston Churchill, he would do well to suspend his populist clown act, and instead emulate the great man who fought for “tolerant and generous practices” in the face of a migrant panic over a century ago.
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